It was 1985, I was thirty-five, a new volunteer with RESULTS, an advocacy organization committed to ending hunger and poverty. I jumped in feet first, determined to make a difference, though I knew nothing about poverty, Congress or how a bill was passed. Something I couldn’t name was driving me to be a change agent in the world.
The work wasn’t sexy—it was phone calls to my member of Congress and letter writing to the newspaper and learning to speak alarming facts about the 40,000 children who died every day from preventable diseases. It was hard and slow, yet somehow, very satisfying. As much as anything, it was being part of a community of volunteers committed to a larger than life vision who fed my need for connection and meaning.
Ten years later I was still working hard to end poverty, but was losing steam. For too long I had pushed myself out into the world to try to fix some brokenness. In the meantime, my insides had become parched. I needed some heart and soul nourishment, a time to look inward, a place for renewal.
I decided to do something about it. That year, seven of us came together in Northern New Mexico for a retreat. We sat cross-legged on the floor in circle, shared our stories, cried, laughed, climbed to the top of a mountain and laid belly down on the earth. I came away quieter and was able to go back to the work with a little more balance. We decided to meet again the next year—it took some doing to get seven women with seven big lives to make this gathering a priority. But by our seventh or eighth retreat, the resistance had disappeared. We saw how much we needed this time, how it infused our spirits.
This year, for our twenty-third retreat, we met in the Pacific Northwest, in a little cabin on a little island, surrounded by green and wet and gray. From the large picture window in the living room we could see the tide swell and collapse—like a living entity. A pileated woodpecker, bobbed its red crown against the Douglas fir. A raven cawed. We sat in circle, though most of us could no longer sit cross-legged on the floor, shared our stories, cried, and laughed. We worked shoulder to shoulder in the tiny kitchen, chopping, cutting and stirring, then sat down to a bountiful table, held hands and gave gratitude.
My need for soulful renewal has not waned—it is more urgent now than it has ever been. The earth is being pummeled by wind, rain and fire and the air is poisoned with carbon emissions and mean-spirited divisiveness. Yet we have the power to change the trajectory of this conversation. When we soften, open our hearts and reach out with compassion we can create a different story.
We can cleanse the air.